Monthly Archives: January 2005

Jonathan Lethem, "Vivian Relf"

Doran and Vivian are strangers, but they keep running into each other. That means something, right?

(from McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories)

A funny, sad little story about a half-meaningless encounter on repeat. Alludes to sneaky truths about first impressions: You don’t forget them. You are impressing as you impress.

Would I read more by this author? Yes. There is a dashing hope to this story that makes me want to live in it for a while. Pain mixed with fate. Romanticized importance of insignificant events.

David Schickler, "The Smoker"

A high school literature teacher thinks something weird is going on with his 19-year-old braniac student. Then he meets her parents.

(From The New Yorker, June 9, 2003, recommended by Maura Johnston)

A funny little story that keeps getting more absurd as it moves along. It’s actually kinda straightforward until you meet Samson and Paulette, who are hilarious characters.

Here’s a pointless observation: This story and the movie Meet The Parents, both feature cats which know how to use the toilet. Sort of strange, given that this is a meet-the-parents story in a way. The parallels pretty much end there, though.

, read it yourself.

Now, for no reason at all, here’s a passage from Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions that I like. It’s a summation of “The Dancing Fool,” a short story by Kilgore Trout.

A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented, and how cancer could be cured.

He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap-dancing.

Zog landed at night in Connecticut.

He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire.

He rushed into the house, farting and tap-dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in.

The head of the house brained Zog with a golf club.

David Mitchell, "What You Do Not Know You Want"

A modern treasure hunter of sorts comes to Hawaii in search of the knife Mishima used to kill himself.

(from McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, again)

This is more or less an old school pulpy detective story, full of wisecracks, shady characters, bizarre twists, heavy drinking, almost-sex, false leads and a wacked out surprise ending. If it wasn’t for the final pages (which were way out there) I would say this is the kind of amusement parky, attitude-driven story I’d enjoy reading all the time. It felt like a series in development, Fletch-meets-Hunter S. Thompson-meets-Dirk Gently, or something. The ending wasn’t bad, just not on the same planet as the rest of the story. Occasionally the language and tone were a bit overdone, but not distractingly so.

Now I will attempt to do some shoveling, as per the terms of my lease.

Margaret Atwood, "Lusus Naturae"

The black sheep of the family is turning into something more sinister.

(McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories)

An awesome, simple, touching, scary story. The protagonist seems to be one of those hapless, misunderstood subjects of black and white horror films. She is what she is. A monster? Yep, that’s the word for it. But words fail.

This author has a bright future in the sci-fi/horror world. Good luck to you, Atwood!


This story included an elegant word I’d never looked up till now:

lugubriously — in a mournful manner.

Technically I posted this story on Tuesday, not Monday. Using a Rambaldi device, I messed with the clock — just to keep things organized.

Robert Kelly, "How They Took My Body Apart and Made Another Me"

Aliens replace a boy’s internal organs with two, squirrels, a hawk, a shoe and more.

(from The Best American Nonrequired Reading, 2004)

Basically, this story is a long metaphor for the way we resist adulthood and puberty and growing up. (Interestingly, to me, this story uses the phrase “blood-eagled” which made me think of a certain moment in one of my favorite short stories of all time by Wells Tower.) The writing style in “How They Took My Body Apart and Made Another Me” — a stream of whateverness mix of narration and internal dialogue — wears on you after a bit. The back of this anthology says this story is a part of a “novel in progress.” I would be wary of reading a whole book written in this manner.

Of course, I don’t read any novels.

Yesterday I walked over to the Borders at Chestnut and Market and dropped $45 into Dave Eggers’ collection plate. Earlier in the day, I’d spent pretty much the same amount on groceries at Trader Joes. Bought meatballs, fake cheese, almonds (which I had a dream about) and other things. But at the book store I only got three books. They are:

The Best American Nonrequired Reading, 2004. Duh. Eggers edited this one. It features a forward by Viggo Mortensen, who, besides being the Lord of the Kings, is also some kind of author. This book has stories by David Mamet and David Sedaris, but most of the names are not well-known and non-David.

McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. Edited by Michael Chabon. This picks up where McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrill Tales (2002, also edited by Chabon) leaves off. The point of this series is plot. I love plot. Authors include Heidi Julavits, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, more.

McSweeney’s Number 14. T.C. Boyle, Denis Johnson, Jim Shepard, more. Plus, holy crap, Wells Tower. The mysterious, though aforementioned, author of one of my favorite short stories which, at this point, needs a shout-out: “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” Nice.

Harlan Ellison, "Goodbye to All That"

A man climbs to a mystical peak in search of enlightenment and finds something like the rest of the world.

(from McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales)

Well, this isn’t so much a story as a snarky riffing on our crazy modern times with our pop culture and our sports and our consumerism and our Google. So, while it’s not really predictable, “Goodbye to All That” doesn’t exactly feel like news, either. The writing is purposely over-cooked, but that’s OK since this is a short one. Here is an excerpt.

All that said, the story included some interesting words and phrases we should all use in sentences this week. This is how we will recognize each other:

dromomania: This doesn’t appear to be in any dictionary, and our Google is little help, but story explains this term as compulsive traveling, wanderlust.

Cathexian: This word has only been used once in the history of time, according to our Google, and that one time is in this story. Cathexia, however, is a real word, most likely. I found some medical page with this sentence:

The cancer relying on fermentation for energy (fermentation is only a 15th as efficient as respiration) demands more nutritional sustenance than the body can afford, and so the body, overloaded with toxins, wastes away… this is Cathexia.

ineluctable: impossible to avoid or evade; inevitable.

and the phrases…

The Avalanche has already started, it is too late for the pebbles to vote: Hmm. Looks like this one’s from Babylon 5, of all things. Never saw it. Always looked like the Mummers version of Star Trek to me. Or maybe the phrase is older than that. Anyway, it’s not really like Ellison was trying to steal somebody else’s line — these phrases come from a list of trite bits of wisdom.

The barking dog does no harm to the moon: I like that.

OK, that’s all.

Haruki Murakami, "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo"

A well-read, six-foot frog enlists the help of an ordinary loan collector to defeat a large worm and prevent and earthquake.

(from After The Quake, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin)

What an utterly strange story. I don’t know that there are any metaphors or allusions at play here. I think it’s just a story about a big frog who quotes Hemingway, references Dostoevsky and wants to help.

Jean Thompson, "All Shall Love Me And Despair"

An overeducated junkie and an adventurous pushover occasionally enjoy a lopsided, doomed nigh-romance. Or something.

(from The Best American Short Stories 1996)

Wow. Though stories of smack addicts and the people they stomp on are the stuff of countless movies, after-school specials, commercials and anecdotes, this story dazzles with its sneaky wordplay. But it’s never too clever, never cumbersomely writerly. In fact, it’s too self-aware for that. See:

But that was a long time ago, in the good part of the bad old days, and Annie’s through with pretty words for ugly things. She doesn’t want anything in her life that has to be tricked out in poetry, explained away.

I also like this:

The first time they walked out on the beach, they were timid, as if someone might shoo them away, smell the city or the fear on them and determine they had no right to be there.


One of the best short stories the project has led me to so far.

No, I didn’t transcribe those lines. I Googled the phrase “the ocean is no certain color” and found this, the first half of the story.

Hanna Krall, “The Woman From Hamburg”

The story starts when a Polish couple agrees to hide a Jewish woman in their wardrobe in 1943. The woman becomes pregnant, and everything accelerates from there.

(from The New Yorker, Dec. 20 and 27, translated from the Polish by Madeline G. Levine)

Fast-paced and plainly told, this story is all about getting down to it. I’m not sure whether the author believes that the secret of the circumstances surrounding the woman’s pregnancy is supposed to be a secret revealed in the story’s final turns, or if you’re supposed to figured it out early on and just let things progress not for intrigue but because a good story is a good story. That make sense?

Lately I’ve been reading stories translated into English. Which basically means the names and places seem foreign but it reads really smoothly. Sometimes I wonder what I’m missing by not reading things in their original language. What untranslatable turns of phrase or cultural references are being omitted?

Ryu Murakami, "I Am A Novelist"

A famous author falls for the woman who fell for somebody pretending to be him.

(from The New Yorker, Jan. 3, 2005, translated by Ralph McCarthy)

At the root of this story is a timeless, unsolvable question: Why does one person like another person. The rules of attraction and fallacies of deciphering them are explored through characters who can’t quite grasp the futility of their situation. “I Am A Novelist” strings together moments of comedy, sexiness, baseball, sci-fi and coincidence to tell its rather absurb story. Then ends it all with a quick slap. An interesting and entertaining read.

I would provide a link to the story, but I have not been able to find it online (unlike the last time I read a New Yorker story).

Instead check out this dramatically titled interview, Ryu Murakami: Enfant Terrible of literature.